Listen: Will $2 Trillion Be Enough?

Today, Congress passed the biggest stimulus package in history. It might not be the end of the government’s pandemic response.

The staff writer Adam Harris joins Dr. James Hamblin and Katherine Wells on our daily(-ish) podcast, Social Distance. He talks about the details of the coronavirus stimulus bill just signed by the president and why, despite its unprecedented size, it’s just the start of the government’s plan to fight the pandemic-induced economic crisis.

Listen to the full episode here:

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An edited and condensed transcript of the conversation:

James Hamblin: I know nothing about what’s happening in Congress financially, because I can’t keep up with everything. Just trying to do the science stuff.

Adam Harris: Essentially what Congress did was pass a $2 trillion aid relief package helping families, education, public health, local governments, and big corporations as well. And it’s been hailed as a remarkable act of bipartisanship, but it’s already being assumed that this is not going to be enough. [Lawmakers in Congress] are still going to need another injection of funds for families who need to pay rent, for businesses who have had to close their doors.

Katherine Wells: Give me some Government 101, like Schoolhouse Rock–style education on this. So the way Congress votes on a bill is they all have to be there in the same room.

Harris: They have to be at quorum, so a majority of the members have to be there and present an order to have a vote. That is not a unanimous consent—something that they can just kind of say, Everyone agrees that this is what we need to pass, and they just pass the bill. If you want a recorded vote, then they are going to need a quorum. So right now, essentially, what that means is, they need 216 members in order to have a quorum to have the vote.

Wells: To be in person, in the same room?

Harris: Absolutely. Yes. So they have to be there in person in the same room in order to vote. And there has been kind of some momentum to get that changed, because this is an unprecedented crisis that requires some modern thinking. It makes sense for members of Congress to be able to vote virtually. But as of right now, that is how they’re supposed to vote.

Wells: I mean, it seems sort of ridiculous, given how we live. But is there a reason I’m not thinking of why that actually is really important?

Harris: The biggest reason is tradition. It’s the way that things have been done. But, you know, we don’t live in the 18th century anymore.

Wells: I am grateful for that.

Harris: Very likewise. And this has shown some of those fissures in the system. It’s shown even with things like voting. [States] have had to postpone their elections, and they don’t have vote-by-mail infrastructures set up. It’s throwing a monkey wrench into the voting process.

Wells: How could it be that we could have a system that couldn’t respond immediately?

Harris: So the levers of government turn slowly, to be as cliché as possible. And essentially what they’re trying to do now is speed up a response to an immediate crisis. The systems aren’t prepared to deal with a process like this. There were legislators literally driving from their homes in places like Michigan or elsewhere—driving from their homes, trying to get back to D.C. to vote. There is a push to keep the legislators in D.C., but the Senate, of course, is now on recess until April 20. So that means that a lot of people will be leaving the District to go back home. But as this is a very immediate crisis, if something breaks down next week—I mean, we’ve already seen more than 3 million jobless claims. If something else breaks down to a significant point next week, and members of the Senate have already gone home, then they will have to come back to Congress under these severe travel restrictions.

Wells: Can you give us an overview of the main points in the bill?

Harris: The biggest thing that everyone has harped on has been the cash payments. So it’s an estimated total of $300 billion worth of cash payments to Americans. You also have $260 billion for unemployment payments. You have $350 billion allocated for the Small Business Administration to offer loans to small businesses. There’s $10 billion for emergency grants, $58 billions for airlines, $8.8 billion for child nutrition, and $450 million for food banks. So there is a lot in there. This is essentially trying to build a social safety net as people are falling.

Wells: This seems like a good first step. I understand that we’re going to have to revisit this, but where are the weak points in the practical execution of this? You know, billions and billions of dollars, trillions of dollars, sounds like a lot of money. But how is this actually going to be implemented? And what do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of it right now?

Harris: The biggest thing is that it may not be enough. Most individuals who are earning less than $75,000 can expect a onetime cash payment of $1,200. [Most] married couples would each get that check and they would get $500 per child. Things like that. But I spoke with Andrew Yang, who ran for president, and one of the things that he told me was, ‘What is that onetime payment actually going to do?’ And actually, the check wouldn’t arrive for a significant period of time. People who already had their direct deposit set up with the IRS would be able to receive them faster. But for people who are unbanked, it could be up to four months down the road. So there’s an argument that there needs to be, for one, more immediate assistance, that they should just start sending out checks to Americans in order to cover those immediate expenses. But also, if you get that check, say, the middle of next month or toward the end of next month, then what do you do the month after? You may have lost your job. You may not have child care. You may have all of these other expenses that you were not prepared for. And you need to figure out a way to deal with those.

Wells: Over 3 million people applied for unemployment last week. Next week is April 1. Rent is due. Is this bill going to solve that problem?

Harris: Probably not immediately. And that’s the big problem. Of course, a lot of cities and states have implemented eviction freezes, where they’re not carrying out eviction orders. But there hasn’t been a national order to freeze rent. There hasn’t been a national eviction freeze. It’s putting the people who are already most vulnerable to some of these actions in a precarious situation. They won’t be able to afford the rent. If they can’t afford their rent, then they probably are going to have a difficult time affording their groceries and different things like that. And if the checks aren’t coming immediately, you know, the bill does have written into it cash payments, and it’ll take a little bit of time in order for those to get processed and sent out to the people who need them.

Wells: “A little bit of time” like weeks, or months?

Harris: Weeks. And if you haven’t already signed up for direct deposit with the federal government, then it could take months.

Hamblin: We talk on this podcast a lot about emotion, and what is motivating people, and what is causing panic and what is not. I think, to Andrew Yang’s point, and to something we have discussed before, that a lot of this is about certainty. And not so much about the money as about knowing that you’re going to at least have a place to stay. You’re going to be able to feed yourself. You’re going to have a place to go when you get sick. If you gave people even $5,000 immediately, that would not ameliorate the panic in the same way as knowing that you’re gonna have a monthly income of much less than $5,000 for the next few months or for the next year, knowing that you’re going to have a house, you’re going to have food, you’re not going to be homeless, you’re not going to be without a bed to go to. That’s what makes me worry about the onetime payment: I don’t know how much it does to get rid of that uncertainty that people will still be facing even when they're not immediately bankrupt. It’s that they don’t know where this is headed.